Taking a page from Stalinist Russia
In 1946, puzzled by the seemingly irrational foreign policy of the United States’ erstwhile World War II ally, the Soviet Union, President Truman’s State Department leadership queried our Moscow embassy for an explanation. In response, diplomat and Soviet expert George Kennan wrote the longest diplomatic cable ever sent up to that time. Sometimes referred to as the “Long Telegram,” Kennan’s explanation became the basis for our Soviet foreign policy over the next forty years.
Kennan explained that the Soviets would not respond to reason. He argued that their aggressive policies came not from their communist ideology, but from Russia’s traditional sense of insecurity. In essence, Kennan argued that directing attention to an outside enemy assisted the Soviets in focusing attention away from their domestic problems.
But the Soviets’ sense of insecurity was based upon a reality: they were weaker than the West. They may try to undermine the Western powers led by the United States, but as long as the West remains united, and offers an alternative, positive message — the “City on the Hill” as Reagan called it — the Soviet expansionism could be contained. This philosophy became the basis for our policy of “containment” which eventually led to the fall of the Soviet Union.
Ironically, led by Vladimir Putin, Russia in the post-Soviet era has been quite successful at its goal of undermining the united front the West presents to its aggression. The result has been a more effective Russian foreign policy than at any time after World War II.
Putin’s success comes, of course, from his effort to install Trump as President here and to undermine the European Union with Brexit. If his goal was to subvert our united front, he has been singularly successful.
Trump, with his coddling of Putin, makes me sick.
Their joint press conference in June 2018 was Putin’s dream — the ultimate humiliation of the United States. But recent events, like the near collision of American and Russian warships, and U.S.-Russian hostility in Syria seem inconsistent with this position.
But if we return to the words of wisdom from George Kennan and look inward, we find some explanation of our current seeming irrationality. First, Putin’s goal was never to control the United States. That is simply unrealistic, and Putin is a realist. His goal was to sow dissension so that the Russians could play one Western nation against the other. Check.
Second, where Kennan suggested that the United States should lead a powerful alliance opposed to the aggression of the Soviets by offering positive leadership, Putin wanted to stop that behavior. To do so, he helped put into office a weak, narcissistic fool, one who would be intimidated by the impressive leaders of the other nations and so would behave with insecurity rather than strength. Check that too.
Third, remember that the aggressiveness of the Soviet Union was borne out of insecurity rooted in Russian culture, not in communist ideology. As a result, that insecure bombast did not end with the fall of communism. Instead, it continued in Russia as it has historically. For us to expect anything different from Russia after the fall of communism was likely self-delusional. Rather than being exceptional, Putin fits the mold of Russian and Soviet leaders to a T.
Finally, if foreign policy can be used as a way to create the impression of strength even when it doesn’t exist, Trump may have found his foreign policy agenda. Rather than leading a global coalition of democracies committed to freedom and standing up to the aggression of the Russians and Chinese, he turns his back on his allies whose leaders intimidate him and instead postures in a way to make him look strong — just as a bully does.
Wag the dog comes to life
Nowadays, truth is stranger than fiction. At least in the movie, people had to believe the story
Consider what happened in Mexico. There was no crisis. It was just an opportunity for Trump to use foreign policy to appear strong.
His tariffs on China are an opportunity for him to direct attention away from his complete failure in North Korea. Despite claiming that he and Kim Jong Un “fell in love,” North Korea has been shooting off missiles.
In each case, Trump was using foreign policy in an effort to paint himself as strong. This is just what George Kennan suggested the Soviets did. Unfortunately for our allies, just as Kennan suggested that rational diplomacy would have little impact on the Soviets, that is also probably the case with Trump. Instead, like a tin pot dictator, it appears that the only other interest that motivates Trump is his own enrichment. Cue the Saudis.
Putin must be laughing himself to sleep every night.
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